Writer-director Christopher MacBride and actor Aaron Poole would have you believe that they have never once belonged to any secret clubs or organizations that plotted to overthrow governments or change the balance of world power. But if that’s true than why are they only agreeing to meet me in a posh Toronto boardroom on the hottest day of the year, deceptively dressed in comfortable clothes? What are they trying to say? What are they selling?
Actually, they’re doing promotion for their new film The Conspiracy (opening in Toronto this Friday at the Carlton), a half faux-documentary and partial first person footage film about a pair of filmmakers (Poole and fellow actor James Gilbert) trying to get to the bottom of what makes conspiracy theories so appealing and potentially founded in truth. Their examination leads them down a dark path when one of their subjects goes mysteriously missing and Aaron begins to see emerging and potentially dangerous patters emerging in the work that was left behind.
MacBride and Poole talked to Dork Shelf about blending real conspiracy theories within the frameworks of both an old school thriller and a found footage film, how the internet’s wealth of information shaped the film, how conspiracy theories are like religions, playing characters searching for the truth, a general mistrust of people in suits, and [REDACTED].
Dork Shelf: I read that you kind of got into this through a friend that sort of started you down this path by asking you to check out some online conspiracy theory videos, is that correct?
Christopher MacBride: Yeah, yeah. I was never really a conspiracy theory guy, so to speak, but I had a friend who was really into this stuff. He was the real deal, and he was always trying to get me to watch conspiracy theory movies and visit these websites and stuff like that. Eventually, I just without ever thinking I was going to make a movie out of it and out of curiosity I watched this movie about September 11th, and I just got totally sucked into it, and I found myself up at 4am still watching these things back to back. I just went completely down this rabbit hole and just started devouring this stuff. At some point it just sort of dawned on me what a cool movie could be done with all these new forms of technology. They did some great movies back in the 70s in the same kind of conspiracy thriller vein, but they don’t really make movies like that anymore, and no one has really made one in this new, modern online conspiracy theory world, which is why I thought it would be good to do.
DS: Well, once you start adding technology to that you can run the risk of making it all seem sort of silly and end up with something like The Net or the Mel Gibson movie Conspiracy Theory. At the same time, there is a way where you can balance that out because once you start talking about those videos that you got sucked into, they are almost always made with a more dramatic eye and flair for storytelling than anything potentially fictional and amped up to create a larger story about the person who made them. Was that kind of the approach and feeling you picked up on?
CM: Yeah. I wanted it to basically feel almost the same way you would feel watching those kind of videos to a certain degree. You just don’t know what’s real and what isn’t even watching those videos. And you’re right, those videos are cut together well with music and a really convincing and authoritative narrator. I realize there are forces at work to get me to try and come around to their point of view in those films, but it’s all filmmaking. Even a straight documentary is someone’s point of view and it’s skewed to that one point of view.
With this film I wanted it to not be a found footage thing, but to be a finished documentary that someone had cut together. I always thought that was an interesting question in those found footage films where they never really address who put this footage together. Who put this together within this universe that we’re watching? Who took the time to edit this together? That’s something I wanted to play with in this movie; that idea that someone had to put this together and it might not be who you think. It’s all about not being able to trust the messenger. Can you trust the news? Can you trust a conspiracy theorist? Can you trust this film, even? You never know how reliable the information you’re getting is.
DS: I think that’s one of the things that the best found footage movies nowadays have caught onto, as well, the idea that someone had to assemble that. Some of them can’t even be called that anymore because the good ones have copped to the fact that everyone has a camera at the ready now. They are more like open sourced footage movies.
CM: Exactly. Like Chronicle.
DS: At the same time you hit upon another aspect of the internet which is that such conspiracy theories now are often fed by the sheer amount of access that people have to information and other theories. You’re always trying to stay one step ahead of the audience in that same respect, throwing out all these little clues here and there and you’re never sure if they are going to pay off or if your main characters are just being played and strung along. So with that in mind, Aaron, how do you act in a film meant to feel this natural like you’re not sure if you’re being played when you know where the script is headed?
Aaron Poole: (laughs) Well, avoiding spoilers, it was just really easy to remain curious about what the events are going to be. You just kind of follow your own natural curiosity legitimately. Just having these questions in front of you that you don’t have answers for creates authentic paranoia or threat. So that’s easy! (laughs)
DS: So is it hard to have someone come up to you and say “We want you to be in this movie and we want you to play yourself and has your name, but as someone who gradually gets really into conspiracy theories”? Was there ever any paranoia on your part that would make you think people would see you and just think of you as “the conspiracy theory guy”?
AP: Well, the whole thing is based around the blurring of facts, so the whole thing has aspects of ourselves. The Tarsus Club at the heart of it all has aspects of Bohemian Grove or Freemasons. So as much as possible Chris was always trying to find ways to blend the fact with the allegory, so being and participating in the creative process from the beginning, I always kind of knew what we were in for. We never really were certain how much of the proper “me” we were going to use for Aaron and at the same time when we cast Jim we had to take his temperature and see just how comfortable he was using real aspects of his life. In the end, there is a whole lot of allegory and just a bit of fact, but we leave it up to the viewer to distinguish.
DS: In the film, you guys go and talk to some actual conspiracy theorists that aren’t actors in the film. What was that like and what really stood out to you the most about these people, whether it was something specific or something about their personalities?
CM: There’s so many different types of conspiracy theorists, so it’s really kind of hard to talk about them as a whole and paint them all with one brush. There are some where you just want to say “Man, you are crazy.” Or that they’re so gullible.
AP: Or some that are clearly mentally ill.
CM: Yeah, or that. There are other ones that are really articulate and smart people who really care about their work and their world. These are people asking questions that aren’t being asked anywhere else.
I think the one thing that I thought was really interesting, and it’s just my opinion, is that believing in conspiracy theories is almost akin to having a religion. You have a preset view of the world and everything that you do around you just fits into that. Let’s just say, like, as a Christian, if you have something happen around you like a hurricane or a famine or someone dies, you always think that it’s just God’s plan. Conspiracy theorists are in a lot of ways the same thing. Everything is part of somebody’s plan. They don’t see something like the Boston bombings as a random event. They already believe in all these theories and it becomes a greater part of all that. That was what I found most fascinating to me. No matter how smart they were or whether they might have been more gullible than sharp, once you start believing in that sort of thing it just snowballs. You can’t see anything as random anymore. You have to fit that into your own religion.
AP: There’s this righteous fervour that fuels this sort of gospel, and technology has totally enabled that. Before you would probably have just one village paranoid as it were, but now he can link to the other paranoids and there’s this massive community and just gossip and feed these righteous flames.
DS: And a part of that is how in this day and age you can pretty much become an academic on any subject that you want to on your own and independent from any form of higher learning if you put your mind to it. You can become a master on any subject you want, and it’s even simpler now that spending days on end in a library, but then there’s the question of the quality of the information you’re getting, as well. And one of the things you have in this film with the Terence character that Aaron and Jim begin following somewhat closely is that he is that same kind of self-taught academic, and it’s easy to see how people can be drawn into that by way of his mastery of inference and pattern recognition.
CM: Oh, absolutely, and there definitely is that idea of a self-made academic, for sure. I also like the idea that all it took for the Aaron character to stumble down this rabbit hole was by clicking on this one link on the internet. It was just random. He clicked on one YouTube link and it led to another and another and another and another, and then suddenly he is, like you say, becoming an expert on a certain topic and an expert in conspiracy theories. When you log on and start randomly searching there’s a lot of dark corners you can find when you look hard enough.
And you also mention pattern recognition, which I also find really fascinating about conspiracy theorists. Patter recognition is a fundamental thing to human survival, really. We were able to largely get away from tigers and other animals and bad weather because we were able to recognize patterns that other animals and beings couldn’t. It’s been bred into our minds that identifying patterns is linked to our safety and that’s what you see working overtime a lot in conspiracy theorists. They’ve identified a potential pattern that emerges, but they tend to not realize that there are about six or seven other patterns that could just as valid, but that one that gets identified makes them feel better. You see that these six events weren’t just chaotic events, but that you could link them through this shared motivation. There’s just something intrinsic to the human mind that they constantly want to find and evolve through those patterns. Maybe they don’t necessarily exist, though.
DS: Now, Aaron, for you as an actor there’s something tied into that very point. Some actors like to do a lot of research going into a role, but here you’re playing someone who is making a documentary and is actively searching for truth in this. How do you create that balance for a character like this that needs to know a little bit going in, but has to build that desire and drive to dig deeper as you go on?
AP: That’s a really great question because it’s something I definitely considered to remain genuinely curious within a film that seeks to capture real discovery.
DS: And your character really wants that connection to the truth.
AP: Yeah. I mean, the fact is, though, at the end of the day this is a fictional film, and it’s a polished and controlled thing where we were doing multiple takes of the same moments, so it was important for me to kind of feed the quality of my curiosity first and foremost. I wasn’t at all a conspiracy theorist coming into this, so I had to research to become just paranoid enough, and then have enough to left to let go and do multiple takes within that with the different characters I have to interact with.
Like all projects, regardless of how different the processes are, I definitely came away with something here. Now I think that I feel a healthy form of scepticism about where my information is coming from. I’ve become keenly aware of the propaganda machine now. (laughs) I think that’s why North American culture in particular has really gone down the rabbit hole. We’ve polarized news outlets. We really question where the information is coming from now and that’s why conspiracy theory is so prevalent.
DS: Now when you write something like this and you are going to have two actors putting their own names to their roles, how important is it to you that they retain a part of their own identity on screen and how much of it did you want to convey?
CM: I knew Aaron before making this, so to a degree I was able to think as to whether or not it made sense for Aaron Poole “the real person” to be passionate in believing or being a sceptic, and just through knowing him I knew he would be better as a passionate believer, and that it would make more sense, so for him that kind of informed his character. I kind of just wrote it the way I needed it to go for the story without thinking of the actors, but once I knew who the actors were I tried to get a sense of where their strong suits are and then you have to be a slave to that. As much as you can you try to adjust those character traits to kind of fit the actor’s strengths.
DS: And by extension of that, how do you keep these characters grounded within what’s essentially two different styles of film when about two-thirds of the way in your film becomes this sort of visceral first person narrative where you can’t rely on any real further development of them as people for the most part and you have to focus more on the situation they find themselves in?
CM: That’s a great question…
AP: (laughs) We learned all about that in post…
CM: (laughs) Yeah. We sure did, but that last third, I always said as long as we get the audience there we would be fine. The momentum picks up so much in the third act compared to the rest of the film. It was difficult to shoot that stuff on a technical level, for sure, but I knew exactly where the moments were and where the tension was, and that was something that I could sculpt. That was really different from the first two thirds, where it was hard in a different way because there was a lot of information to get out. You have to balance the character against the story and against however many plot details you want and how much you want to stick to actual conspiracy theories and relationships. Then the last third, where it gets really visceral, I thought to be really easier. It was harder from a technical standpoint, but not from a dramatic standpoint.
DS: Do you think there’s something inherently funny about how people have a general distrust for large groups of people wearing suits?
CM: (laughs) Um… I have to be careful with this… Yeah.
AP: (laughs) I think large groups of people in suits have done a lot to earn that mistrust. When we premiered the film it was when the Occupy movement was prevalent and the stock market debacle and that sting was still lingering. So, I think it’s true and they’ve earned a lot of that.
CM: And really, there’s just something creepy about a hundred guys in suits all together. That creeps me out. I don’t care what they’re up to. I’d be more scared of that than most anything else.
AP: I dunno, a couple hundred guys in cut off jeans and beards can be pretty creepy too.
DS: I have only one final question. I was doing some research and I saw that one of your producers in the credits was a Mr. Murray Chance, and I can’t seem to find any information on him. How did you guys get hooked up?
CM: We can’t answer that question. We’re contractually obligated to not answer any questions about Murray Chance.
[Christopher reaches over and shuts off recorder]